A new book looks at the East India Company; a ruthless corporation which gained control over one of the richest nations on earth, had MPs in its pocket and a two hundred thousand strong army to protect its interests.
Across a 30-year writing career, Scottish historian, broadcaster and critic William Dalrymple has been preoccupied with the history and culture of India.
It's the country he now calls home for half the year, spending summers in his native Scotland. With family connections to India dating back for generations, his latest book The Anarchy traces the 'relentless rise', dazzling heyday, and the sometimes shameful past of the East India Company.
At the peak of its powers, this prototype for the vast multinationals of today exerted as much power and influence as any nation state.
The book starts by describing the contents of Powis Castle in Wales, he explained to Kim Hill why it’s a good launching point for talking about the East India Company.
“When you go to Powis Castle, you see this very British site – this sort of glowering castle sitting on a rock, surrounded by rather gorgeous Tudor gardens. A site more British is hard to imagine.
“But when you go inside, you see something completely different. There are… treasure chambers filling room after room of this castle. Powis actually contains more Mughal and Indo-Islamic loot than any single collection in India – more than the National Museum in Delhi.
These artefacts are part of the Clive Museum, named after Robert Clive who served in India as part of the East India Company. Clive dealt with Indian uprisings on behalf of the British government while amassing a personal fortune and collecting the spoils of war.
“The important thing to remember is that ‘loot’ is a Hindi word, it was unknown outside India until the mid 18th century where it found a ready home in Britain and its remained part of the English language ever since.”
Dalrymple says the company’s tendency to loot and pillage was inbuilt from its inception.
“The company was an extraordinary strange beast that that morphed rather like the creature in Alien - moving from that sort of little slug thing that comes out of John Hurt’s chest to the moment when it grows into the great mother beast.
“The East India Company starts off really as a sort of pirate operation run by a bunch of ex-pirates in a ship that was originally called the Scourge of Malice. And it on its first expedition to the East Indies to go and get spices, it doesn't even have to trade; it just spots a Portuguese galleon going the opposite direction, so they board it, move all the spices, and head home.
“And then it moves into respectable trading organisation for 150 years, where it basically becomes rich moving the textiles produced by the Mughal Empire around the world.”
He says the Mughal Empire had just overtaken China as the world’s largest producer of industrial goods and was generating about 38 percent of world GDP (England at the time generated 3 percent). The East India Company realised it had a better Navy and ships than the Mughal Empire and stepped in to become the main shipper of Mughal textiles, around the world.
At the time, he says, The East India Company was as distinct from the government and Crown as Facebook is from the United States government today. Yet, when provoked by the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj ud-Daulah, the company changed tack once again – this time to conquer and dominate the region. At its height, it had an army of 200,000 Indian soldiers (sepoys), twice the size of the British Army.
“It’s the most improbable story. If you were to write it as fiction or a film script, you’d be laughed out of court, it wouldn’t be possible.”
Although it was distinct from the government, around a quarter of parliamentarians owned shares in the company.
“The Mughal Empire, just to give you a picture, is not only producing over a third of world manufacture, it's the largest, most centralised wealthiest, richest state on Earth. It controls all the modern India, all the modern Pakistan, all of modern Bangladesh and quite a lot of modern Afghanistan. It’s a vast land mass and it has four million men under arms. It has this vast military force. So, there's no question that any pesky little trading company or any Western State could even prick the foot of this great military beast.”
That changes when the Mughal Empire spectacularly breaks up following the death of Aurangzeb. There were revolts across the lands from Sikhs, Punjabs, the Jat, and the Maratha. That, Dalrymple says, is the moment where the whole thing shatters.
“If you take the analogy of throwing a big baroque mirror out of a second floor window, and you see these glittering pieces shatter and scatter on the ground – it’s those glittering, rich fragments that the East India Company hoovers up.
“They realise the whole ball game has changed now. Rather than facing this great, centralised and rich empire, they are surrounded instead by culturally rich, economically rich, but politically very vulnerable small states everywhere.”
The big prize for the EIC was Bengal, the centre of the textile industry and, in a sense, the richest region in the world.
Dalrymple says that, using Bengal as a base, the company began to borrow money from cynical India banks and train up Indian troops in modern military style, creating a huge force to fight its battles on the sub-continent.
“It remains, right up to the end of the 18th century, in the hands of one trading company that had one office. And that company, in its head office in London – 100 years into their history, and this is the spookiest thing, really, still only has 35 people in its head office.”
He says it’s understandable that people wrongly think it was the British who conquered India, rather than a small company. In light of numerous scandals surrounding the company, its history was whitewashed.
“The fact that the East India Company was a company and not the government was something that was well known and a cause of scandal in 18th century England because everyone knew that the company was bribing MPs and MPs had their fingers in the pot. And when news comes of the big Bengal famine in 1770, there are marches in the street, there are plays put on in the Haymarket with Clive, the governor of the EIC, portrayed as Lord Vulture.
“Generally speaking, the Victorians whitewashed what they saw as an embarrassing early phase in the story. They turned figures like Clive, who’s this nasty sort of Godfather figure… into imperial heroes. The whole story of the East India Company is turned into a story of the British with a capital ‘B’.
“In a sense, the Indian nationalists bought this version of events, but inverted it. So, rather than a story of national glory, it was a story of national oppression followed by liberation. The fact that it was a corporate story, that this is a story of corporate corruption and corporate violence… that got lost in the wash. And this is what I’m trying to correct with this book.”
He says that although the British Raj lasted only a short time compared with the East India Company, there are almost no novels or films about the company, but the British Raj looms large in the public imagination.
“It’s like the bit of the iceberg that’s beneath the surface, it’s so much larger.”
“It's not just a story - an improbable an extraordinary story - of how one corporation takes over the whole of Mughal India, and you have one office in London controlling an empire that goes over thousands of miles. It's also, in a much bigger sense, the contemporary story of the power of the state against the power of the corporation. And this is something you know, Elizabeth Warren is making speeches about on her campaign trail in America every day.
“Everything we face with the whole question of Big Pharma and Big Data and the power of multinationals like Exxon, these are incredibly contemporary issues. And, they have their roots in the history of the East India Company.”
Dalrymple says Britain’s tendency to romanticise the Raj and brush over the horrors of the what happened in India has set a dangerous precedent which persists today, including a sense of British exceptionalism which he thinks has led to Brexit.
“Every German child knows about the evils of Hitler’s regime, and as a result, Germany has been able to – in a sense – move forward from that and embrace the modern world without baggage. The British, and this whole mess of Brexit comes from the fact that we haven’t faced the dark side of our history. We, really, are ignorant about it.”